Our Essential Lessons are a sequence of lessons that form the backbone of the Writing Program curriculum, illustrating what we want all students to learn across our program’s diverse course topics.

Students often believe that the most important thing about writing a research paper is having a strong thesis and therefore try to produce that thesis as early as possible in the research process. But experienced researchers know that good research begins with questions, and that those questions drive the research and writing process, even as that process leads to revision and refinement of the questions. This lesson asks students to practice this approach.


This lesson encourages students to draw on their own life experiences and interests as they develop their projects, which not only helps them connect with the academic content more personally but also helps the class as a whole exchange a wider range of perspectives on the course topic.


Students will be able to explore background, theory/method, argument, and exhibit/evidence sources in order to generate and recursively re-formulate research questions with consideration of different rhetorical situations.

Key Terms

research question, claim, BEAM/BEAT


At the beginning of WR 15x, instructors should emphasize the importance of question-oriented discovery and research, and the first parts of this lesson will help lay that groundwork. As students embark on their semester-long research projects in Module 2, the later parts of this lesson will frame information searching as a way to explore and reformulate research questions.


Genre Awareness

Given the conceptual nature of asking good questions, the recursive process of questioning and discovery applies to many disciplines and rhetorical modes. However, students might compare how different disciplines and rhetorical modes use different methodologies to answer their questions, or pose the same question for different reasons. If or when appropriate, consider how certain genres, modes, and media–podcasts, film documentary, etc.–deploy the research question as a hook to begin the episode or scene, as well as establish the motivating purpose of the project.


Students should consider how their research question has evolved since they began their research, and note what new questions their research has unveiled. Students can reflect on how this approach to writing is distinct from assignments wherein students begin by finding a thesis rather than identifying a question, and how the comparative uncertainty of research-oriented writing affects them as writers, students, and people in general.

  1. Use the very beginning of the course to help students begin to imagine possible research questions, connected to their reasons for selecting this course topic.
  2. Ask students to consider the motivating questions of the course topic, either as a full class, in small groups, or in a short take-home exercise.
  3. Establish students’ interest.
  4. Ask students to freewrite for a few minutes on the following questions:
    • Consider the course topic.
    • What do they want to know more about?
    • What about this topic seems intriguing to them?
    • How does it connect to something they care about?
  5. Prompt students to begin forming some questions; have them write five different questions that might serve as motivating research questions for their projects.
  6. Note that these questions may be linked, or they might represent different possible areas of interest within a topic. The task here is to articulate and reflect on possibilities for a project, not yet to narrow it down.
  7. Prompt students to reflect on their questions, noting that all researchers are limited by the constraints of time and resources.
    • Which of the above questions are too large or ambitious to answer for this project assignment?
    • Is there a way to revise them so that they are more focused and constrained?
    • Likewise, which of the above questions may be too focused and constrained, insufficient for driving a large research project?
    • Is there a way to revise them or to connect multiple questions together into a single, coherent project?
  1. Ask students to reflect on the research questions that the writer at hand hopes to answer, whenever you introduce argument or theory sources as course readings, and discuss how the writers answer those questions through evidence and analysis.
  2. Use class readings to point out how all arguments are motivated by questions.
  3. Help students to distinguish broad questions and narrow or localized questions, as well as the relationship among them, in the first “Course Foundations” module.
    1. Help students identify the specific, researchable questions that will motivate their major writing project, right at the point in the semester when you introduce students to library resources with your librarian.
    2. Pair students up and ask them to share their research questions with a partner (or small group). Each member of the workshop group should identify the one or two questions that seem the most relevant and interesting, and answer the following questions:
      • What makes this question compelling, and why?
      • What, as a potential reader or audience for this project, would you want to learn more about?
      • Do the questions seem connected in any way?
      • How do you envision that connection?
    3. Discuss stronger and weaker questions as a class.
    4. Discuss as a class the next steps–beginning research using search terms and the library website.
    5. Model effective vs. ineffective search terms in a class session.
    6. Ask students to choose one of their questions (or two interconnected questions) to begin researching.
    7. Prompt them to think about the language and phrasing of the question, as well as associated search terms that might be useful when identifying resources.
    8. Choose an example, connected to your course topic, of how students may begin approaching the use of library search terms.

For instance, imagine a research project interested in the effects of rising sea levels on vacation rentals in Florida. Searching for “rising sea level” and “Florida coast” might return very few hits on a library or resource database. Terms like “climate change AND tourism” would generate more resources, and the researcher could use other tools or additional language to narrow down those search results.

  1. Ask students to develop and test their own list of search terms (beginning from key words in their questions) and keep track of which terms generate meaningful resources.
  2. Set aside class time to allow students to begin researching.
    1. Prompt students to reflect on what they have learned from the sources they have gathered, especially new questions or variations of their initial question.
    2. Discuss students’ challenges and discoveries, and prompt them to reflect on the process so far.
    3. Ask students to what extent they have been able to find useful and reliable resources that will help answer their research questions.
    4. Consider, as a class, the following questions; you may wish to have students write responses to them first, or discuss in small groups first:
  • What kind of resources were produced in your search, and why might the search terms you used produce those resources as top results?
  • Is your research question either too broad or too narrow? How might it–or the key terms you are using for your search–be adjusted to produce more helpful resources?
  • What areas of this topic seem to have grabbed the most scholarly attention? Why do you think other researchers are so interested in this aspect of your topic?
  • What were you surprised to find that you did not expect?
  • Are there any gaps in the research that warrant greater attention? What do these resources fail to discuss, and how might your own research address that gap in knowledge?
  1. Prompt students to plan their next steps in the research process, given their experiences and reflections above.
  2. Ask students whether they currently think they should revise their research question, abandon it (if it no longer seems feasible), and/or conceptualize new questions that came to mind after beginning their research.
  3. Note that although all research writers need to be aware of the finite amount of time possible to complete their projects or papers, small adjustments to the research question–or the courage to find a better question–may end up saving time later.
  4. Discuss research writing as a recursive process of asking questions, finding answers, and asking questions again.

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